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After his tour of the South, Lebowitz moved to Los Angeles, where the gigs weren't as plentiful. Just when the lack of work was about to drive him from California, he decided to head to San Francisco (which he insists on calling "Frisco" because it makes everyone else crazy).
"I came here and I got all these gigs, and I was making more money than I ever had," says Lebowitz, who maintains that his only consistent job is booking shows. "I couldn't leave because I was doing so well."
Lebowitz describes San Francisco in the '80s as a punk pianist's paradise -- or at least, a climate more conducive than a Georgia bar frequented by air traffic controllers.
Admission is free
He also performs on Wednesday, July 10, at 7:30 p.m. at the Temple Bar, 600 Polk (at Turk), S.F. Admission is free; call 776-9650.
"In the 1980s, I used to do scream-alongs," Lebowitz says. "I would write out the lyrics to my originals and songs I covered, like 'Jealous Again' by Black Flag, and hand them out to the audience. I don't do that anymore, though. People don't know my songs as well as they know that 'I've Been Working on the Railroad' song."
Lebowitz's scream-alongs attracted the attention of local punk label Fowl Records, which released his only full-length record, a 1987 collection of covers and originals aptly titled Beware of the Piano. Lebowitz describes the album, which charted at a number of college radio stations such as Berkeley's KALX-FM (90.7), as delving into "ominous subjects like monsters and airplanes and hemorrhoids." Next, Lebowitz put out a 1993 7-inch single called Smoke, Suffer, and Die, then set to work on a follow-up effort, which he has yet to complete. (He's also planning a rerelease of his out-of-print LP, complete with bonus tracks.)
"I'm stressing quality, not quantity," Lebowitz says without a trace of self-consciousness, adding that he's been working on some songs for years. "One thing about making a record is it takes a long, long time."
One of the people who's anxious for Lebowitz to get back into the recording studio is Paul Dawson, the head of Fowl Records. Dawson's respect for Lebowitz's talent hasn't diminished with age, and he says he thinks audiences will continue to discover (and rediscover) the pianist's one-of-a-kind craft.
"DJ's career's gotten a little more low-key than it was before, but I don't think he's ever going to give up," Dawson says. "He's been playing at old-folks homes, and I think the requirements of a performer in a place like that are different than a bunch of people sitting around in a bar. He's very adaptive."
That versatility is on display during a recent lunchtime set at the Financial District's Rincon Center atrium. Because it's Flag Day, Lebowitz has littered his performance with plenty of patriotic tunes, as well as a number of Ramones songs to honor the band's recently deceased bassist, Dee Dee Ramone. While it's difficult to ignore Lebowitz and the grand piano, most of the lunchgoers seem oblivious to the actual content of the music he's playing. Ever the consummate professional, Lebowitz utilizes arrangements that amuse the few listeners in the know -- like the guy who grins as Lebowitz launches into Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" -- while providing pleasant background music for everyone else.
"Ninety-eight percent of the people do not care; they don't know it's Flag Day," says Lebowitz, who adds, without any prompting, that he refuses to buy American flags because they're all made in China. "Most of the time, people aren't paying attention. But sometimes they'll come up and say, 'Hey, was that the Sex Pistols you were just playing?'"
It's moments like these that Lebowitz treasures. And since his regular gig at Club Deluxe dried up a couple of months ago, the Rincon run is one of his most reliable sources of work -- although his enthusiasm seems steady whether he's playing a bar, a food court, or a retirement home. But even Lebowitz can't ignore the fact that the city doesn't embrace him like it used to. After being pushed out to San Leandro during the dot-com boom, Lebowitz was left wondering whether he should skip town altogether.
"The heyday of San Francisco was from 1849 to roughly 1987 or 1990," he says. "I should have been long gone. I'm just barely making it, so it's only a matter of time before I leave.
"But," he adds enigmatically, "I'm not leaving until I have one last hurrah."